Entry Points into Creation

by Debra Kim Sivigny

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

DEB SIVIGNY: It sounds a little cliché because lots of people probably say this, but the most game-changing production I’ve seen in recent years was Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. I was really struck by the production’s power to immerse the audience through music, scenic installation, smell and even temperature, without a single spoken word. It reminded me that creating a narrative from what we see and hear is a powerful instinct.

Somewhat inspired by Sleep No More, I designed a devised production called Six Impossible Things. Produced by Rorschach Theatre, I worked with a team that created an installation inside a working bed and breakfast in Washington DC, adapting existing interiors to reflect different eras of the 20th century. Actors performed simultaneous 7-minute plays that looped and intersected between the house’s three floors. Rorschach has always made conscious decisions about audience immersion through configuration, and the production was an experiment in how audiences interact with actors and space.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

DS: Natsu Onoda Power, my colleague at Georgetown University, is such an inspiration to me. She creates adaptations for her ensembles through what I would coin as “devising missions” and brings her designers in on the creation. I love how she brings design, technology and presentation together on the stage. Each design element is another character in her work. She really understands how it can influence and interact with her actors and audience.

I carry her example forward with me as inspiration to create my own work. I’m drawn to the power of design to tell a story where an audience can make connections between ideas and concepts without being led or prodded. To this end, I am currently researching for a piece about Korean transnational adoption, something that will be produced in 2016-17 (tentative) with The Welders, a playwrights collective that I am a new member of. The collective is comprised of a creative director, three playwrights, two devisers, a dramaturge and a designer, but we are all taking turns as the “generative artist” who will lead our own project during a six month period in a four year timespan. I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity and I hope that there are others who will be inspired by our work. We’re interested in work that exists “out of the box” not because it should, but because it has to be. Whether this manifests in found space, alternative forms of narrative, or uncharted subject matter, we are dedicated to pushing the means in which new plays are created.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

DS: I could use this opportunity to gripe about implicit hierarchy in the field, but I’d rather ask the question: what are the opportunities for artists of all stripes to make different entry points into the creation of new work?

We have become accustomed to writer or director or ensemble led work, but what about designer led work? What about performances without text that don’t fall under the category of dance? Why does one aspect or artist get valued over another?

I’m hoping that as we move towards a greater emphasis on collaboration, we can begin building a new language that changes the power dynamics. I also think that we, as theatre artists are too quick to draw lines in the sand. This is my job. That is your job. I don’t do that. That’s the technician’s/stage manager’s/producer’s problem… Call me idealistic, but we have to put our goals for collaboration into action and support each other to avoid resentment and tension in our ranks.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

DS: In the wake of Ferguson, Charleston, Rachel Dolezal, #blacklivesmatter, and all the other twitter/media explosions that have inundated our feeds in the past few months, we have a lot to discuss as a community surrounding race. This isn’t a discussion to have to behind closed doors with those who already agree with us—that’s preaching to the choir, and it’s not productive. What’s important is that we engage in conversations that extend beyond what’s comfortable for us—to not be afraid to say to others “hey, I need you to explain this issue to me because I don’t understand why you’re angry/feel marginalized/feel suffocated.” We have to listen, have empathy, and assume good intentions. Theatre artists may create work that supports this dialogue but it’s up to all of us to continue the conversation beyond the walls of our workplaces.

Debra Kim Sivigny has been working in DC Theatre for over a decade as a designer. Recent credits include costume design for Double Trouble at Imagination Stage, very still & hard to see at Rorschach Theatre, G-d’s Honest Truth at Theater J, Rapture, Blister, Burn at Round House Theatre and Mockingbird at Kennedy Center Theatre for Young Audiences. She has also worked at Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre 2ndStage, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Academy for Classical Acting, Washington Shakespeare Company, Forum Theatre and Theater Alliance, among others. She has an MFA in costume design from the University of Maryland, a BA from Middlebury College and is a proud member of USA 829. debsivigny.com

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com